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Farewell, Archbishop Niederauer: ‘We thank you, and we thank God for you’

14-15 PAGE 5.25.17_vigil.altar.md.ADSF2017_Last Rites For Archbishop Niederauer-15A viewing and vigil for Archbishop George H. Niederauer welcomed hundreds of mourners to Mission Dolores Basilica May 11. (Photo by Dennis Callahan/Catholic San Francisco)

May 25, 2017
Catholic San Francisco

Twenty-one bishops and most of the priests of the Archdiocese of San Francisco joined a full church of friends and faithful at St. Mary’s Cathedral on May 12 for a warm and prayerful farewell to retired Archbishop George H. Niederauer, who died on May 2 at age 80.

Cardinal William J. Levada gave the funeral homily for his lifelong friend and successor archbishop of San Francisco, speaking of Archbishop Niederauer’s wit, gifts as a teacher and spiritual director and “serenity in the face of death.”

“We thank you, and we thank God for you,” Cardinal Levada said.

Cardinal Levada quoted from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, which Archbishop Niederauer chose as the second reading for the funeral Mass: “Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.”

The funeral Mass followed a May 11 vigil at Mission Dolores Basilica where homilist San Diego Bishop Robert W. McElroy remembered Archbishop Niederauer for forging “unity and love” as leader of the eucharistic communities of San Francisco and Salt Lake City before his appointment as archbishop.

Archbishop Niederauer was a “great man of faith and service” who taught two generations of priests and seminarians, Bishop McElroy said.

Bishop McElroy, a former archdiocesan pastor and auxiliary bishop, said the archbishop “truly embraced the image of the church as pilgrim people of God, struggling in this world to live by the Gospel in often excruciatingly difficult situations and marching together unsure where God was leading, but committed nonetheless to ennobling our world while acknowledging our failings.”

Archbishop Niederauer died of interstitial lung disease just two days after celebrating Mass in his bed at Nazareth House in San Rafael in honor of the 55th anniversary of his ordination as a priest, Cardinal Levada said.

“He lay in bed, with his priest’s stole around his neck and stretched out on the bedclothes,” Cardinal Levada said, adding that the bedside assembly consisted of two Sisters of Nazareth – Sister Linda and Sister Fintin – and two of his faithful caregivers, Laura Bertone and Mary Schembri.

Cardinal Levada said Archbishop Niederauer, who served from 2006-2012 as the eighth archbishop of San Francisco after 11 years as bishop of Salt Lake City and a long career as a seminary English professor before that, was prepared for death although experienced moments of anxiety after moving in January to hospice care at Nazareth House from his residence on the grounds of St. Patrick’s Seminary & University.

“Once he asked me, “Have the doctors told you how long this will take?’” Cardinal Levada said. “I had to say, they didn’t seem to know exactly.”

“He put up with the uncertainty, since he knew sooner or later it was the Lord who was calling him,” Cardinal Levada said.

In a life review of his friend, Cardinal Levada said Archbishop Niederauer picked up his wit and “gift of gab” from his family and remained sharp until the end.

“In these last years we would occasionally joke about how we had to dredge our memories for the names of people and places that didn’t come up on our mental screens till five or 10 minutes too late!” Cardinal Levada said. “But his storehouse of witty sayings never seemed to abandon him. When we celebrated our 80th birthdays last year – he was older by one day – I thought to remind him of the adage ‘age before beauty.’ I quickly realized my mistake. He quipped back immediately – with a fake smile – the Gertrude Stein line, ‘pearls before swine.’ I can assure you that I knew I had been put in my place!”

Archbishop Niederauer and Cardinal Levada became friends at St. Anthony High School in Long Beach and later attended seminary together.

Ordained in 1962, Archbishop Niederauer was distinguished as an English professor at St. John’s Seminary College in Camarillo for half his 55 years as a priest, helping prepare future priests of the Los Angeles archdiocese. He also taught an elective class in film appreciation, Cardinal Levada said.

“I once heard one of his former students remark, ‘He never taught a boring class,’” Cardinal Levada said.

He continued his work at the seminary for many years as spiritual director and finally for five years as rector. “Thus he was a spiritual director for a generation and more of future priests during their seminary formation,” and for many other priests when he became co-director of the Cardinal Manning House of Prayer for Priests in the Los Angeles archdiocese, Cardinal Levada said.

Archbishop Niederauer continued his retreat work after retiring at age 76 and gave a least six weeklong retreats last year alone, Cardinal Levada said.

“One could not but admire how meticulous he was in preparing his homilies, classes, talks and retreat conferences to fit his audience, surprising perhaps for someone who seemed never at a loss for words,” Cardinal Levada said.

In a welcoming at the funeral Mass, Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone noted the care and close friendship with Archbishop Niederauer of Presentation Sister Rosina Conrotto, director of consecrated life for the archdiocese; archdiocesan worship director Laura Bertone; Archbishop Niederauer’ s former secretary, Laurel Miller; and Mary Schembri, who long served the archdiocese in caring for retired priests. Archbishop Cordileone also thanked the Sisters of Nazareth for their care of the archbishop. He also stated his gratitude for the support his predecessor gave him through the years.

An interfaith group of mourners included representatives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from Salt Lake City and Northern California, Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Gerasimos and representatives of the San Francisco Interfaith Council. Also in attendance were teachers and students from the four archdiocesan high schools and several K-8 schools.

Following Mass, the white-vested priests and bishops formed two lines on the cathedral plaza, singing “Salve Regina” as pallbearers carried Archbishop Niederauer’s white-draped casket to a waiting hearse. The archbishop’s three closest friends from seminary days – Cardinal Levada, former Orange Bishop Tod Brown and former archbishop of Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony – sprinkled the casket with holy water before it was placed inside for its journey to Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma, where Archbishop Niederauer was interred in a section of Holy Cross Mausoleum reserved for the archbishops and auxiliary bishops of the archdiocese.

Among those in attendance were Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez; Salt Lake City Bishop Oscar Solis; former Cheyenne, Wyoming, Bishop Joe Hart; and former San Francisco priests and auxiliary bishops McElroy, Santa Fe Archbishop John Wester and Spokane Bishop Thomas Daly.

At the vigil, Bishop McElroy also recalled that Archbishop Niederauer celebrated his 55th anniversary Mass the Sunday before his death. He said this “last Gospel of his earthly journey” was about the encounter of the disciples with the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus.

“The journey to Emmaus is a fitting centerpiece for our prayer for Archbishop Niederauer on an even deeper level tonight because it encapsulates so profoundly the central rhythms of the life and death of the great man of faith and service whom we are entrusting to our God,” he said.

“The story of Emmaus is a resurrection story. It points primarily to our future union with God rather than our life on this earth. And in that reality we find the fulcrum for our prayer and remembrance tonight, our celebration of Archbishop Niederauer’s life on this earth and much more profoundly, his new life in heaven.”

Bishop McElroy commented on the friendship and faith journey of Archbishop Niederauer and Cardinal Levada.

“Sixty years ago the Lord Jesus came to two young disciples, raised by their families in faith … As they discerned their vocation, both of them beseeched the Lord to ‘stay with us’ and in one of the marvelous grace notes of their lives, George Niederauer and William Levada embarked upon paths of discipleship in service to the church which were to criss-cross over a lifetime of shared friendship, shared mission and gratitude to God.

“For more than 30 years George was teacher and guide to two generations of priests and seminarians,” Bishop McElroy said. “The great literature and beautiful movies which he so treasured were not only a source of wisdom and perspective about the human condition and discipleship in Christ. They were also a testimony to the reality that God’s grace is intertwined with the whole of the created order and with the complex beauty of the human soul.

“In the depth of his acuity about the human condition, his intense love for God, his treatment of every person he encountered as a treasure more precious than silver, and in his grace-filled humor, GN taught Catholic faith in all its fullness,” Bishop McElroy said.

San Francisco Auxiliary Bishop William J. Justice spoke at the vigil of Archbishop Niederauer’s personal qualities, including his extreme punctuality, his “extraordinary grasp of the English language” and his humor even as his health was failing. He repeated one of the archbishop’s favorite jokes, borrowed from Bishop Frank Quinn, once an auxiliary bishop in San Francisco.

“He said that at a priest’s funeral, you always have two priests lying, one in the casket and one in the pulpit,” Bishop Justice said. “Well I can assure you at this vigil on this day for this archbishop, the one in the pulpit is telling the truth.”

14-15 15.3_5.25.17_smc.priests.plaza.ADSF2017_Last Rites For Archbishop Niederauer-62 PAGEArchbishop Niederauer’s casket is walked from St. Mary’s Cathedral as attending priests and bishops sing “Salve Regina” following his funeral Mass May 12. (Photo by Dennis Callahan/Catholic San Francisco)


14-15 15_5.25.17_holy.water.plaza.casket.blessing.ADSF2017_Last Rites For Archbishop Niederauer-63 HALFArchbishop Cordileone blesses Archbishop Niederauer’s casket with holy water as priests and bishops including, Jesuit Father George Schultze and Msgr. John Talesfore join him in prayer. (Photo by Dennis Callahan/Catholic San Francisco)


14-15 15.5_5.25.17_levada.arnehofer.ADSF2017_Last Rites For Archbishop Niederauer-72 HALFCardinal William J. Levada comforts Archbishop Niederauer’s cousin, Anne Arthofer, on the cathedral plaza as the archbishop’s casket is placed in a hearse for the procession to Holy Cross Cemetery. (Photo by Dennis Callahan/Catholic San Francisco)

14-15 15.6_5.25.17_casket.staged.mausoleum.wide.ADSF2017_Last Rites For Archbishop Niederauer-82 PAGEArchbishop Niederauer’s casket awaits committal rites in the rotunda of Holy Cross Mausoleum of the Cemetery. The crypt where the archbishop was interred is visible at right. (Photo by Dennis Callahan/Catholic San Francisco)

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